The hero of Shimon Ballas’ latest novel is a Jewish speechwriter for Saddam Hussein
by Paul La Farge
Shimon Ballas is a writer doubly exiled. Born in Baghdad in 1930, he was a part of Iraq’s lively secular Jewish society, the son of middle-class parents who lived in the city’s Christian Quarter. He went to a school founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, but Hebrew scarcely featured on the curriculum; the languages of instruction were French, English, and Arabic. Ballas was raised on Egyptian translations of Arsène Lupin and Alexandre Dumas, on the 1001 Nights and Les Misérables. In 1947—when the state of Israel was founded, an event that indirectly brought about the end of Iraq’s Jewish community—he had already filled many notebooks with stories and observations.
In that year, there were about 124,000 Iraqi Jews, most of them in Baghdad, where they comprised between a fifth and a third of the city’s population. They were integrated but not assimilated, and in 1941 they had suffered through the farhud, a wave of anti-Jewish riots that left hundreds dead. They were mostly not Zionists: in 1947, the General Council of the Iraqi Jewish community sent a telegram to the United Nations, opposing the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. In part this was because they thought of themselves as Iraqis first and Jews second, and therefore had no need for a state of their own; they must also have feared the repercussions a Jewish state would have in the Arab world.
They were not wrong. Zionism was declared a capital offense in Iraq in 1948; emigration too was made punishable by death. Then, in 1950, the Iraqi government devised a new policy: it would allow the Jews to emigrate to Israel, provided they renounce their citizenship and allow their assets to be frozen (and later, predictably, confiscated). At first few accepted this offer, but after a series of bombing attacks on Jewish homes and businesses, the trickle became a flood. Between May, 1948 and August, 1951, more than 121,000 of Iraq’s Jews left for Israel, a country they had not asked for, and about which, for the most part, they didn’t know much. Shimon Ballas was one of them.
Before he left Baghdad, Ballas burned his notebooks, as though to force himself to make a fresh start. Almost a decade passed before he started writing in Hebrew, a language which he taught himself with the help of the newspaper. His separation from his mother tongue was violent: for three years, while he was writing his first novel in Hebrew, Ballas forbade himself to read a word of Arabic. (He returned to the language later, as a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Haifa.) The Transit Camp (1964), the fruit of that uprooting, is the story of Iraqi refugees in, well, a transit camp, a makeshift place where the emigrants from Baghdad waited for Israeli society to take them in. The Transit Camp was benignly, if perplexedly, received in the Israeli press: the critics mostly took it for reportage, an account of how things were in a not-well-known segment of the population, a work of social rather than literary importance.
In the ensuing decades, Ballas has published four short story collections and nine more novels (among them the remarkable Outcast, which has just been translated into English: more on this below). Yet he has remained something of an outsider in Israeli letters, perhaps because he writes about subjects that have little to do with Jewishness, or even with Israel: the life of an Arab servant in Baghdad, or a Palestinian architect, or an Islamic humanist exiled in Paris. In the mid-1990s, poet and translator Ammiel Alcalay described Ballas as “completely ignored as an integral part of [Israeli culture] and constantly referred to as some kind of Iraqi or Baghdadi, a representative of something not defined in your own terms.” Nor has Ballas done much to ingratiate himself with the establishment. Speaking to Alcalay, he observed, “I’m a Jew by chance, it doesn’t play that much of a role with me. Zionist ideology is essentially an Ashkenazi ideology that developed in a different culture [...] and which came to claim its stake here in the Middle East through alienation and hostility toward the surroundings [...]. I am not in conflict with the environment, I came from the Arab environment and I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment.”
A recent vogue in Israel for all things mizrahi has changed this picture somewhat: along with his fellow Iraqi-Jewish writers Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash and Nissim Rejwan, Ballas has achieved a belated recognition. The Transit Camp has been republished, along with two other early novels, and in 2003 Ballas was awarded the President’s Medal for Lifetime Achievement in literature. In a perverse way, though, his success seems only to have added to his outsiderness: as a Mizrahi, an Iraqi Jew who will not subsume his past in the myth of a universal Jewish experience, Ballas remains in the ghetto of representativity, where he speaks for a minority, rather than for a nation, or for literature itself.
But Ballas is writing literature, as American readers can now discover for themselves. Outcast, which was translated by Ammiel Alcalay and Oz Shelach and published by City Lights Books, was written in 1989-90, but thanks to recent events it has once again become a timely book: it’s a fictitious memoir set in Baghdad on the eve of the Iran-Iraq War, and based on the life of Ahmad Nissim Soussa, a Jewish civil engineer who converted to Islam in the 1930s, and whose books won the approval of that formidable literary critic, Sadaam Hussein.
Ahmad Saussan, as Ballas calls him, is a perpetual outsider: sent to study in America, he falls in love with an American shiksa, and thereby estranges himself from his family (“Are there no Jewish women in America?” Reuben, his brother, screams ). Saussan separates from his American wife; then, in an access of something, loneliness or bitterness or perhaps faith, he becomes a Muslim, and writes a book, My Path to Islam, in which he condemned the tribalism of the Jews. This condemnation leads Saussan to self-acceptance:
I wrote the chapter in one sitting and when I was done I found it well structured and in need of no polishing or elaboration. I felt completely exalted, like someone facing a mirror and seeing, for the first time, that he is not deficient, that his body parts are well formed and in good shape, that his appearance is fine and normal like that of anyone else. No longer the outcast standing at the threshold, I am already inside, and my family is large and mighty and majestic!
As a Muslim, Saussan rises to literary eminence in Iraq; he flourishes while his childhood friends—a doctrinaire Communist and a mild-mannered but unrepentantly Jewish poet—are imprisoned and driven into exile. Yet his self-acceptance proves fleeting: haunted by his disconnection from his family, shunned by his old friends, Saussan wonders if he is doomed to be “different forever, lonely forever, other forever.”
Saussan is at the height of his fame when Outcast begins. To celebrate the publication of his eight-hundred page blockbuster The Jews and History (which was commissioned, we’ll learn later, by the Iraqi Ministry of Information), the President—Sadaam Hussein, remember—invites him to speak on national television. The triumph nearly gives way to disaster:
After the President spoke I got up to read the speech I had prepared but, to my surprise, I realized that I’d forgotten my reading glasses. I must have looked pretty confused up there, fumbling around through the pockets of my jacket and pants with the crowd staring and the television cameras all pointed at me. I was compelled to admit what had happened and the President broke out laughing, carrying the crowd along in a wave of applause, as if I’d just told a good joke.
We can’t help but admire Saussan’s forthrightness in telling us this embarrassing story, even as we recognize him for what he is, a schlemiel who has schemed his way to the top of one of the world’s most vicious power structures—even as we recognize that Saussan is literally (and perhaps metaphorically) blind.
This is where the book gets really tricky, or, you could say, really interesting. Outcast demands that the reader share Saussan’s myopia: in its first pages you are introduced to a cast of characters—Butheina, Hamida, and Kazem—without having the slightest idea who they are; nor will their identities be disclosed to you for many pages to come. The effect is disorienting, as if you too had forgotten your glasses; you have to wonder who these people are, and how, if at all, they are related to one another, and why, why, no one is telling you these things! But it is also enticing. What appears at first as artifice reveals itself slowly as a kind of hyper-naturalism: Ballas is writing as if he actually was Saussan; he explains nothing that Saussan would not explain to himself.
The confusion that hangs over Outcast speaks of the circumstances in which Saussan lives. “In these pages I can be open and freely express whatever it is that I wasn’t able to say in my other books,” he writes, but the condition of his openness is that no one—except maybe his daughter Butheina (there you go!)—read what he has written. Saussan’s memoirs are not intended for publication, at least, not during the author’s lifetime; he tells the truth for his own benefit alone. This is where the enticement comes into play. You, who have struggled to figure out what Saussan is talking about, end up feeling as though you are on Saussan’s side; so you will believe him when he tells you that his decisions—to oppose Zionism; to argue for an end to Jewish separatism and even to the idea of a separate Jewish identity; to convert to Islam and then to champion “a general Muslim unity for social and cultural revolution that could pull us away from dependence on the west”— were motivated by real conviction, not by opportunism; not, certainly not, by anger at his Jewish brother or his American wife.
Or maybe you won’t believe him. Ballas is adept at keeping us in doubt, at dividing our sympathy between Saussan and his accusers. And because you, the reader, are so close to Saussan, by the end of the novel you have an intimate sense of what it means to live under a capricious and repressive regime: not only does it become hard to believe other people, but, and far worse, it becomes hard to believe yourself. Ballas’s narrator knows this. Near the end of the book he writes,
The authors of memoirs who, like me, approach such writing in their old age [...] tend to be self-congratulatory, showing others how they overcame difficulties, what lessons might be drawn, and how to climb to the peak after being down and out. That isn’t what engages me. I am writing of a life experience in which neither success nor failure is at issue, rather, what is at stake is experience itself.
The assertion is desperate. Saussan—if we believe him—does not care whether he is admirable or no; he merely wants to believe that these were his experiences, that he is not so thoroughly a creature of half-truth that his own memories have become false.
Outcast was attacked in the Israeli press when it was first published, in 1991. Ballas was accused of asserting his “Arabness”—a response, perhaps, to the fact that he was no longer writing about Israel at all, and therefore could not be contained within the role of minority spokesman. In fact, though, Ballas is no more a speaker for the Arabs—or for the regime of Sadaam Hussein—than he is a speaker for the Iraqi Jews who emigrated to Israel in 1951. He is a novelist, and what he speaks for, if anything, is writing: “I am not in dialogue with the nationalistic or Zionistic point of view,” he said in the same interview with Ammiel Alcalay. “If anything, I am in dialogue with language itself. On the one hand, I am trying to fend off, avoid or neutralize ideological connections or associations within the language. On the other hand, I am probably trying to bring my Hebrew closer and closer to Arabic. This isn’t done through syntax, but maybe through some sense of structure or way of approaching things.”
Even reading Outcast in English, one feels another way of doing things at work: a way that relies heavily on omission and inference, a befuddling way that draws you closer and closer to a narrator who may or may not be telling the truth, who may or may not know how to tell the truth. What you feel in Saussan’s narration is perhaps less dishonesty or self-deception or guardedness than a profound foreignness, the presence of one mode of thought inside another. A politician might say that Ballas is trying to unite in literature identities that have become irreconcilable in ordinary life, that he is shaping a Hebrew Arab language in which the truth of his own experience can be expressed. In the end, though, I think of what Walter Benjamin said about translation: how the translator brings together two fragmentary human languages in order to suggest the shape of the perfect divine language, the vessel of meaning before it was broken. It’s a noble ambition, and, if you want to be cynical about it, a very Jewish one, also.
Paul La Farge is the author of two novels, The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction. His third book, The Facts of Winter, was published by McSweeney's Books in 2005.